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Stateside Podcast: Guns and suicide in the U.P.

A black and white photo of a window with the blinds closed. The window's shadows fall on a bed.
Dean Hochman via Flickr

Political conversation about gun laws come up after tragedies like mass shootings. But gun safety legislation also has the potential to prevent a far more common problem: suicide. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, and rural communities are hit especially hard. With higher rates of depression and alcohol abuse — and limited, if any, access to mental health services — rural Americans are left with few options to turn to for treatment.

But the Michigan legislature recently proposed something called extreme risk protection orders. If passed, extreme risk protection orders would allow family members, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officials to petition a court to prevent someone from purchasing or possessing a gun if there's a risk they might harm themselves or others. Pat Gallinagh, an activist with the Gogebic Range Suicide Prevention Council in the western Upper Peninsula, thinks these measures would save lives — especially in rural parts of the state.

"Granted, no law is going to protect everything," Gallinagh told Stateside. "But that's just like saying we don't need speed limits, or we don't need stop signs, or we don't need red lights out there. We got all of them and we still have traffic accidents, but it would be a terrible idea to get rid of them all. And we're still trying to find ways to make our cars and our roads safer. And that's what we should be doing...in relation to mental health and suicide."

In a place where gun ownership is high, like the Upper Peninsula and other rural parts of Michigan, having a gun temporarily removed from a household could prevent someone from acting on suicidal thoughts.

"Most suicides are not carefully planned," said Gallinagh, who educates about suicide prevention in local schools and churches. "But when that impulse hits [someone], if they don't have easy access to a means of self-destruction, then the impulse usually goes [away]... And it'll probably come back, because... the number one, what we call 'risk factors,' is a previous suicide attempt...But if they don't have immediate access to lethal means, there's a good chance they'll survive, and at least give the chance for someone to help them."

While mental health resources are slowly expanding — Gallinagh said Gogebic County went from having no psychiatrists to having one, plus a community mental health center — gun safety measures may play an important role in preventing lethal suicide attempts and buying more time for treatment.

Hear more about the legislature's proposed gun safety bills, and suicide prevention in rural Michigan, on this episode of Stateside.

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If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, please seek someone out to talk to. The Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 9-8-8.


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Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.
Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.